Saturday, January 23, 2016

I am the Alpha and the Omega

Where the Lagoon Nebula was already an eyecatcher, I was most eager to find out more about one of the jewels on my 'To Visit' list: The Omega Nebula, also named the Swan Nebula or just Messier 17. In fact, from the Lagoon you can already get your first glimpses of the Omega Nebula, a distant and darker hue of gas against the plane of the Milky Way. You will also see the bright, young stellar cluster of NGC 6618, which was born out of parts of the nebula in the not-so-distant past.

The Omega Nebula is thought to hold some 800 times the mass of Sol. That is no biggie for a nebula, mind you, but those parts of the Omega Complex that we don't see hold some 30,000 solar masses more. This makes the complex one of the most massive ones on our side of the galaxy; and it also gives you an idea about the complexity of those interstellar gas clouds. In fact, the complex is nearly identical in its makeup when compared to the Orion Complex in our immediate neighbourhood. We just see it at a different angle from Sol.


The area around the nebula is a so-called H-II region, a region dominated by ionized atomic gas. This ionization comes from the nearby cluster of massive, young stars, namely NGC 6618. Their radiation is so intense that it tears atoms apart and makes the surrounding gas heat up and 'shine'. So when we see the Omega Nebula, we only see an illuminated hotspot within a much bigger cloud of gas and dust. Again, it gives you an idea about the size of these interstellar cloud monsters.

When talking about the young star cluster of NGC 6618 we are talking about a former part of the Omega Complex that somehow collapsed and gave birth to a multitude of protostars (both T Tauri and Herbig Ae/Be stars) and young main sequence stars, including a few O types. They should now be in the process of using up the remains of the cloud core's gases and eventually drift away. For the interested explorer, there are quite a few very interesting objects to be surveyed here. The most massive stars seem to have collapsed already so there are quite a few neutron stars and black holes hidden in the cluster. Especially the stars of the PW2010 survey seem to hold most of them and they are awesome to behold and sometimes quite hazardous to navigate.

Scanning down all of the NGC's stars would obviously take a huge amount of time and would warrant an entire expedition in its own right, so I made a mental note on coming back at a later time. It's not like those stars are going anywhere soon, their expansion rate is estimated to be merely 12km per second.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

To The Lagoon

I always keep a short list of deep sky objects I intend to visit in the near future. The Lagoon Nebula has always been on it and I was really looking forward to travelling there after my visit to both the Bug and Red Spider Nebulae.

Approaching the Lagoon Nebula from the galactic south, there are some objects that are worth visiting, namely the Open Clusters of NGC 6531 (aka Messier 21) and NGC 6530. Both clusters are relatively young and dense but still undergo expansion and the surroundings still have enough interstellar medium to continue star formation for quite some time. In fact, the not so distant Bug and Spider bear witness of how active the region still is. One red giant collapse here, one supernova there and you’ll have enough shockwaves ploughing through the interstellar medium and igniting hot dust cloud cores for the next generation of stars.

Speaking of stars: Of the brighter stars in those clusters there is one that has acted as a veritable beacon system in the past, a cornerstone of coreward expeditions and a magnet to cosmic explorers, tourists and – lately – pirates: The bright supergiant of Thor’s Eye. It has been labelled ‘Eye of the Beholder’, ‘Lagoon’s Jewel’ and also the ‘Maw of the Abyss’. Melodramatic for sure and everybody who has visited this system sure has different feelings about it!

I am somewhat biased towards the Eye. It is a type O star of more than 16 solar radii alright, but it does not have any celestials except a gas giant and a black hole. Yes, okay, a black hole but with FSD technology and ultra-resolution imaging systems it’s not that these are elusive stellar rarities anymore. Maybe I am a bit callous here but I can’t understand the hype about the system. However, word spread fast that the members of the Distant Worlds Expedition would pay this system both homage and a visit.

It was here that a wing of several pirates from god-knows-where waylaid unsuspecting explorers of the Distant Worlds Expedition not long ago. Casualties were light but rumours of these attacks spread faster than the speed of light in the scientific community, leading to an increase in the local travel advisory rating (which is generally a bad thing for unarmed exploration vessels).

However, there is another star system I would like to point out and that is LKHA 115. It is also embedded in the NGC 6530 cluster, but it has a total of three black holes, two of which are in close orbit around each other. The total mass of those three is a bit lower than that of the single one of Thor's Eye, granted, but the system is much more dynamical. If you have a graviton suite hooked up with your discovery scanner you might be able to pick up some gravitational waves from the two orbiting black holes. Good luck!

Now, the Lagoon Nebula, also known as Messier 8, is a very interesting region, because it is embedded in a much larger cloud of gas and dust in which, until recently, star formation took place. The result of this star formation is the Open Cluster NGC 6530, which lies directly at the Lagoon’s doorstep. It may have worked like this: Parts of the original bigger dust cloud must have collapsed, forming the young NGC 6530 cluster with its bright, hot stars. 

The solar winds of these new-born stars ‘burned away’ the remnants of the surrounding dust cloud of the complex. What is left is the star cluster on one side and the nebula we see today as the Lagoon Nebula on the other side. So the nebula is basically that part of the original cloud that did not collapse and commence star formation. That is why the Lagoon and NGC 6530 lie so close together: They are made of the same matter from the same cosmic cloud and thus the ‘Lagoon Complex’ bears great similarity to older star forming regions like the Orion Complex or the Carina Complex. The ‘Lagoon’ is just younger, an astronomical infant, so to say.


Leaving the Lagoon behind, the Distant Worlds flotilla soon set course for the next important waypoint, the Omega Nebula. As it happens, the Omega Nebula is also on my short list of 'things to visit' so I can't await arriving there and have a decent meet-up with some of my exploration pals.

Time to move on...

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Bugs and Spiders

So the exploration flotilla left Shapley 1 yesterday and began its trek towards the next waypoint, the mighty Lagoon Nebula, also known as Messier 8. What lay before us were some 1,000 light years and the approach towards the Sagittarius Gap. I could have taken the direct road, speeding towards the Lagoon, but I decided to take a detour and poke around some of the deep sky objects that lay, well, not exactly along the way, but in the exploration corridor the fleet was going to take anyway. 

I always wanted to see and travel to the Northern Jewel Box (NGC 6231). It is dubbed the V945 Scorpii Cluster by explorers and it is magnificent to behold even from afar. The cluster is very young and is thought to have formed directly from material from the Lagoon. However, there was enough time in the cluster for the first stars to collapse already, leaving behind the occasional black hole or neutron star.

En route to the cluster also lies a very interesting structure: The bipolar planetary nebula of NGC 6302, dubbed the Bug Nebula. You should definitely pay it a visit. The nebula allegedly formed after a very large star collapsed into a Wolf-Rayet object. The former star really must have been at the upper level to still produce a nebula ‘peacefully’ instead of having gone nova and blowing stuff apart much more violently. The star’s magnetic field acted as a containment for the ejected material and that – simply speaking – is why we see the nebula in its bipolar ‘hourglass’ shape. Like I said, go there and write a postcard to your loved ones.

If afterwards you are still not fed up with nebulae (before heading to the Lagoon Nebula) there is still the Red Spider Nebula (NGC 6537). It is some thousand light years away from NGC 6530 and the Bug Nebula, but hey, no rush! The Spider is a worthy sight. Contrary to the Bug Nebula the Spider does not seem to have a central star. In ancient astronomy texts there are references to a White Dwarf but so far all astrometric methods of locating it in terms of navigational data have failed. Maybe the dust disc in the centre is just too dense for astrometric pinpointing. What it has in common with the Bug Nebula (and in fact with many planetary nebulae) is its bipolar structure. The central star blew off much of its outer shells and the magnetic fields or maybe the gravitational influence of a massive binary star have forced the stellar ejecta into its peculiar form. Nice to behold and absolutely interesting for studying plasma physics.

These are just three of the more prominent examples of the in-betweens when travelling from Shapley 1 coreward. It is an area of space dominated by active molecular regions that still hold enough gas and dust to produce many stars. In fact, the whole area is classified as a H-II region and those nebulae in it are just the colourful and most visible hot spots of it, much like the Orion or Carina Molecular Complex. 

Space repeats itself, but now it’s time for the Lagoon and its beauty.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

A Tribute To Harlow

Yes, we know today that the Milky Way is a big place full of lights and wonders and that we start each and every exploration trip from a pretty normal, if not outright boring place in the galactic disc. But that was not always so. Back in the 20th century the scientific community based their world models around only one galaxy in the entire universe and the firm belief that Sol was located in the very center. So far, so good, 'barbaric times' you might want to put forward as an argument. Looking back now, 1,300 years later, we allow ourselves to be that arrogant, but we omit the fact that science never was and will be a static thing. It belongs to the Frontier and the new Horizons we open up with each passing day and light year.

It is because of this that the first 'real' waypoint couldn't have been selected at a more ideal point. The Distant Worlds flotilla assembled at the planetary nebula named Shapley 1 (dubbed the Fine Ring Nebula, because from Sol we see a nearly perfect disc/ring). And it was that guy Harlow Shapley back in circa 1930 AD who through tireless observation and calculation deducted that the Milky Way had to be much bigger than it was thought back in the day, and he also found out that Sol was located at a dull spot near the fringe and not, as scientists believed, in the very center. Needless to say, he had a hard time and a Great Debate then about the fuss he created. Essentially, Shapley hadn't scratched at a pillar of the astronomical 'world' model, no, he just kicked it over.

Now, you might say 'Why is Shapley 1 so ideal as a first waypoint?' and I would answer 'Because from here we venture forth to show that the galaxy is a richer and bigger place.' Once again, we are at a threshold to commit ourselves to opening our eyes to the universe and to bring home a new idea of its vastness and beauty. 


I cannot think of a better and more symbolic place to start this endeavour...

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Beyond The Abyss

It has been two months to the day that I made port for rest and recreation in Alioth. It's been busy and costly, since I eagerly wanted to upgrad my fuel scoop to a state-of-the-art one after all the time-consuming tanking back in the black. It's not that Stellar Cartographics makes you a rich person, you know. I mean, they can if you manage to give them tons of data from like thousands of celestials, it's just that you shouldn't be tempted to calculate an hourly wage on it. Anyway, the Intrepid is in good shape again (and so am I) and I was browsing through the long term Mission Board when I ran into Commander Kamzel again. You know that guy from the Galaxy Mapping Project I hooked up with on my Perseus Arm trip. He told me of another project he was setting up and on top of his former one so quite naturally I was interested in what he had to say and show. The result was an exchange of communication over the InterCom and, well, the idea of the project won me over. So I called the docks and ordered some other upgrades for my Asp and just hoped the workers wouldn't go on strike or the station into a lockdown (you know, all those maintenance shutdowns these days...).

And now, exactly two months later, I find myself on some small fringe world named Pallaeni; and what awaits is nothing less than the biggest concerted exploration endeavor this galaxy has ever seen (apart from the era of generation ships maybe). The big impact crater on Pallaeni's pole is bustling with activity, the comings and goings of many ships from throughout known - and unknown - space. What unifies us is the gigantic Distant Worlds Project, launched in 11/3301 AD shortly before my return from the Perseus Arm. It's an undertaking by multiple private and corporate consortiums, including the omnipresent Pilots Federation with the aim to provide a safe and mapped corridor of travel to the galactic core and beyond.

Needless to say, I was intrigued from the very first start and after some thoughts, preps and goodbyes I parked my good old Asp among all those pioneer in that crater. I had the option of an Anaconda-class retrofitted exploration cruiser, but it would not have felt right to leave my 'Intrepid' behind, that space lady that served me so well all those months out in the black.

The route is set and divided in a multitude of waypoints and basecamps. The first one is the planetary nebula Shapley 1, named after ancient days astronomer Harlow Shapley, the guy who found out that the Milky Way was way bigger than it was thought and that Earth lay in a pretty boring spot of it and not in the center. He sure had a hard time then making his point.

The route from Pallaeni towards Shapley 1 was of course dotted with the homing beacons of many ships. All from explorers who agreed to share instant location data with each other. I think this alone speaks for mutual trust and the will to fly and work together. When compared to all the bickering and political schemes going on in the Bubble I sometimes wonder if it's out here in the unknown that people can together find what you might call galactic peace. We just have to tread carefully in uncharted space because you never know what waits there.

Part of the fun of it, really...